28 July 2016

Transit A2 @ HOM Art Trans

56 practicing Malaysian artists contribute works of a certain size, to support fundraising for the Malaysian Art Archive & Research Support (MARS). This exhibition offers too an opportunity to survey the subject matter, and approach of local artists, at this current moment in Malaysia:

Azam Aris - Eyesore (2016)

  • 71% of contributed works are paintings (i.e. paint on canvas with frame)
  • 41% of contributed works have a figurative element which is intentionally blurred or distorted
  • 39% of contributed works are portraits of a head (some include shoulders and/ or face)
  • 23% of contributed works depict at least one animal
  • 4% of contributed works depict at least one politician
  • 46% of contributed works contain a significant red element
  • Averaging the prices of contributed works, an “A2-sized artwork” is priced between RM 3,800 to RM 4,000. However, the top ten highest-priced works make up ~49% of the price total of all 56 contributed works.

Ilham Fadhli Shaimy - Untitled (2016)

Surely, MARS can support better research than the inadequate generalisations listed above. On a more serious note, this fundraising method – of getting artists to contribute (sales are split 50-50 between MARS and the artist) – is problematic. Visitors are encouraged to acquire as a sign of support, where an artwork’s quality or intrinsic quality becomes only a secondary factor for a purchase decision. Such transactions apply to the wider Malaysian art world, where collectors are expected to support its development, regardless of the actual output. Collectors too, expect artists to fulfil personal requests in return, when contributing monies to art initiatives. In this power imbalance scenario, the collector needs to believe in the artist’s autonomous ability to express meaning. And the artist needs to believe that s/he can do just that.

Masnoor Ramli Mahmud - The Player (2016)

23 July 2016

The Crowning Glory @ Sutra Gallery

“Ordinary mortals are inadvertently caught in the maya of owning and disowning that momentary glory. However, each evening when a performer climbs the stage and subsumes himself in that sacred aura to assume the power of a fleeting glory, he is in fact living in a world of make-belief with two selves – the normal and the elevated. On stage he has to perform and lapse from the mundane to the elevated. A similar situation happens with the painter when he is ‘possessed’ by the act of creation. However, the painter is able to transform an absence into a tangible presence. This is precisely what Sivarajah Natarajan knows; and he knows it too well. His virtual absence on the stage as lighting designer of Sutra fills an egoistic obsession which he announces in clear terms as his ‘presence’ in his painting and sculptures.”
- Crowning Moments, Dr Dinanath Pathy, exhibition catalogue for “The Crowning Glory”, 2016

Yudhisthira - Refuses to enter Heaven without his steadfast companion - The Dog (2016)

Functioning as a marker indicative of an on-stage character, headdresses and masks seem like inconvenient props in traditional dance. Directly in contact with the performer’s head and face, donning it becomes an act of assuming identities. The moment one gets into character, these typically elaborate headgear capture spectators’ attention, while the performer ideally forgets that one is in costume. As a regular observer of stage dance, Sivarajah Natarajan deftly expresses his observations in various art mediums, as presented in this exhibition of works from the past five years. Older works feature Greek myths like Jason & the Golden Fleece; some focus on dancing movements, such as the lively hands covering a majestic fanged mask in ‘Pak Jimat dan Barong’.

Semangat Menora (2011)

Colourful studies in primary colours lead to the more decorative paintings exhibited, which utilise patterned backgrounds and vivid outlines. Sivarajah’s painting approach is mature and assured. Luminous underpainting and matching hues help bring the subject matter to life, especially in straightforward depictions like ‘Yudhisthira’ and ‘MahaKala’. Wayang kulit characters are drawn directly on the canvas in cobalt blue in ‘Antara Wayang dan Bayang’, the same method also used to illustrate the ornamental wood carvings in ‘Semangat Menora’. The latter work looks different in the catalogue, and as the artist mentioned in a radio interview, he is contented to re-work as long as the painting is still in his studio. In this case, the additional elements result in a positively better painting.

Rasa Unmasked - The (Double) Face of Glory (2012)

In ‘Rasa Unmasked’, a white mask is attached to the back of one dancer’s head, where both countenances look equally alive. A number of imposing bronze sculptures retain this aura of one assumed (and alive) character, turning the relatively large headdresses into objects of reverence. Charcoal drawings of these sculptures present more vitality, where the bushy moustache of ‘Koothu Character’, and the large monolid eyes of ‘Gerhana – the Eclipse’, lend these characters a human characteristic despite being obvious mythological subjects. In illustrating the glorious quality of headdresses worn, Sivarajah touches upon the enduring aspects of traditional dance, where ideal stereotypes inspire an eager audience. In this contemporary age when one no longer knows which mask one is wearing, such demarcations are helpful reminders.

Installation view [from l to r] The Clown of God (III) (2014); The Clown of God (I) (2014); The Clown of God (II) (2014); The Clown of God (I) (2016)

18 July 2016

The Past is Never Where You Think You Left It @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

Gowri Balasegaran’s catalogue essay states that, “(t)his exhibition explores the relationship between the past, the present, and the future that is evoked in (Katherine Anne Porter’s novel The Ship of Fools)”, a fuzzy-enough objective as far as pompous curatorial themes go. One can only (re-)construct images from an existing visual vocabulary, hence it is unsurprising that most artists utilise found objects as the medium of choice. An accumulation of cut-out business cards by Choy Chun Wei, and resin-encased used t-shirts by Ivan Lam, turn stereotyped items into abstract luxury objects. On the opposite wall, ten year-old paintings by Chong Kim Chiew are arranged around a relatively large  depiction of a map, titled ‘Invisible Word’. These small works with thick impasto project shorelines, denoting the artist’s interest in boundaries has not waned over the years. 

Choy Chun Wei - Bricolage of Identities II (2016)

Nostalgia for a place has always figured in Kim Ng’s work, and ‘A River Runs Through’ presents a brilliant representation made from woodcut and vinyl weavings. Subtle embossed forms emerge from a brown textured surface, and are juxtaposed against a beautifully carved street scene on bright red coloured board. The flickering image reminds one of the artist’s starting point – an old photograph of a wooden house built by his father – but it is clear that the presented artwork strives for immediate visual impact rather than a romantic attempt to preserve a memory. Hung nearby are Gan Sze Hooi’s straightforward illustration of ‘Kg Hakka Mantin’, and one tacky painting with cut-away canvas pieces, the latter’s works faring poorly when compared to the former’s masterful craft.

Installation and detail snapshots of Kim Ng - A River Runs Through (2016)

Following on her last exhibition which featured the transformation of local political paraphernalia, Minstrel Kuik builds a hut with wax-covered newspapers as its walls. Red fluorescent lights illuminate the interior, where a sewn-up broadsheet – combined from the 31st August 2015 editions of Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian – include video stills from Malaya’s first Prime Minister talking about power. The installation immediately demands one to interrogate personal responses to symbolic items like the Malay newspapers, melted wax, political rhetoric, red threads, unity slogans, etc. In a time when Malaysian artists like to comment about local politics, albeit in a general and vague way, Minstrel’s incisive reference to a specific political hegemony is refreshing for its directness.

Installation snapshots of Minstrel Kuik - The Rebirth of A Nation (2016)

Anurendra Jegadeva’s ‘New Gods, Old Gods II’ presents nude figures donning Cantonese opera headdresses, while Rajinder Singh’s silkscreen collages remind of amalgamated temple forms from Latiff Mohidin’s “Pago-Pago” series. Two photographs made using outdated processes by K. Azril Ismail, display ingenuity in its subject matter and production method, yet its oversized suede-covered frames lend the images an air of antiquity that borders upon irrelevant obscurity. Leaving the gallery, I see a Facebook post reminding one to sign an online petition, about the recent demolition of Syed Ahmad Jamal’s sculpture ‘Puncak Purnama’. I remember it as a run-down and derelict monument, the last time I saw it three years ago. Perhaps, the past should be left where I thought I left it.

K. Azril Ismail - Table Study – Skull, Warrior, Bird & Guide Book (2012)